- 09 Sep 21
We are hugely looking forward to the release later this week of the Aretha Franklin biopic, 'Respect'. To celebrate, we take a look at the story behind some of her greatest hits.
Liesl Tommy directs the new Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, which is in cinemas this Friday. To prepare for its release, we look back over some of Franklin’s most iconic songs, and the history behind them. Take a few minutes to listen back to the awesome power of the Queen Of Soul – truly there was no one to equal the great Aretha Franklin.
‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’
By 1967, Aretha Franklin had been singing, recording and trying to get her big break, all in vain. Franklin had recorded nine albums for Columbia Records but she had yet to find her signature sound, leading to her contract with the record company lapsing. But Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records recognised Franklin’s talent and swooped in to sign her, convinced that she could be a star if she embraced soul. Atlantic brought her to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the core musicians had helped shape classic records by stars including Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. Jerry Wexler gave Franklin the blues ballad ‘I Never Loved a Man’, but the band struggled to find an arrangement that worked. Finally, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and Franklin found a funky piano riff that brought the song together, and Franklin delivered power, need and sultriness in a powerful vocal performance. The song made it into the Billboard Top 10, propelling Franklin’s first Atlantic album to No.2 – and Aretha Franklin was finally on her way to stardom. The recording of ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)' becomes a triumphant scene in the new Franklin biopic Respect, with Jennifer Hudson playing Franklin and Marc Maron playing Jerry Wexler.
‘I Never Loved a Man’ was such a towering hit that it was clear that Franklin needed to stick with the irresistible combination of soul, blues and gospel that made up her signature sound, and she needed a killer follow-up to her breakthrough hit single. Atlantic suggested she record a song that had already been a hit for Otis Redding two years earlier; ‘Respect.’ Redding’s version was a fun but far less distinctive and punchy version than the arrangement Franklin came up with. Franklin introduced the now iconic punctuated rhythm, and her backup singers – her sisters Erma and Carolyn Franklin – added in some fun lines and slang to their lyrics, including Franklin’s beloved phrase ‘TCB’, which stands for ‘taking care of business’, and the ‘Sock it to me’ refrain. But of course it was Franklin’s empowering vocal performance and her unapologetic demand for R-E-S-P-E-C-T that transformed this song into a feminist and civil rights anthem. ‘Respect’ gave Aretha her first long-awaited No.1 hit and was instantly iconic. In the new film Respect, director Liesl Tommy shows Franklin and her two sisters arranging the song in a fit of midnight inspiration.
‘Chain Of Fools’
As the biopic Respect shows, Franklin’s tumultuous and abusive marriage to her manager Ted White became a destructive force in Franklin’s life, as he controlled her public image and their personal lives alike, frequently lashing out at her violently. This abuse, as well as childhood trauma, led to Franklin attempting to escape through alcohol, and it was during a period of real struggle that Franklin recorded this emotive, soulful song about betrayal and disillusionment. Franklin didn’t write ‘Chain of Fools’, but connected deeply to the lyrics, singing about the ‘five long years’ of her abusive marriage. The song also has another meaning that made it particularly resonant to a 1960s audience, as the song’s writer, Don Covay, reportedly wrote the song in reference to the cycle of poverty and slavery in America that was weaponised to keep Black people oppressed and disempowered. Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler had originally intended for Otis Redding to record the song, but upon hearing the demo, knew it needed Franklin’s soulfulness and emotion. The song became her fourth No.1 hit in 1967.
By 1968, Franklin was on a roll, having finally found and committed to her signature sound, and it was time for her own song-writing abilities to come to the fore. Her previous hits such as ‘Chain Of Fools’ and ‘Respect’ had played on themes of pushing back against cruelty and betrayal, and becoming empowered to demand better treatment – and these themes surfaced again in Franklin’s self-penned songs ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ and ‘Think'. The latter became another song with two meanings; Franklin was getting ready to leave Ted White after years of abuse, so her cry of ‘Freedom!’ was personally resonant. But the song was also released just a few weeks after the assassination of Franklin’s close friend Martin Luther King Jr, who of course had made the phrase “Free at last” an iconic refrain in the fight for Civil Rights. The song, full of liberating power, also had a resurgence twelve years after its release when it appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers, starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.
‘(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman’
Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote this song specifically for soul’s greatest voice, and it became a Top 10 hit in 1967 – and an unforgettable element of the modern song canon. Carole King later did her own version of it on King’s album Tapestry but admitted that no-one could sing it like Aretha Franklin. In 2015, a 74 year-old Franklin performed the song at the Kennedy Centre Honours as a tribute to Carole King, coming onstage dressed in a fur coat and sparkling clutch, sitting down at the piano and launching into a beautiful version of the song that brought everyone in attendance – including then-president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama – to tears. King remained in ecstatic open-mouthed awe throughout the performance. Franklin then rose and walked to centre stage, dramatically shrugging off her fur coat while performing some incredible vocal riffs that brought the entire audience to their feet.
Respect will be released in Irish cinemas tomorrow September 10th.